The importance of asking…

I try to create relationships with students that are honest and trusting. To that end, when I tell them I want them to be honest, I mean it. Even if they have to tell me something difficult.

Write a letter

Today I asked my homeroom students to write letters to us, their 4th grade teachers. It’s a great mid-year exercise, it is one more place for them to reflect and give us feedback, and it’s an opportunity to set a school-related goal right before we meet with their parents at conferences in a couple of weeks.

I appreciate the kind words and the praise of things they love. Of course I feel good about the affirmation that what I do matters and is helpful. There is humor – “What I like least is homework, of course!” There is insight into skills that they recognize they need to develop right now as learners.

I wonder though about the non-specific letters, the ones that indicate that things are just fine with no elaboration. Are they really fine and this student doesn’t want to write any more? Or do they not trust that I want them to be honest and I’m open to hearing a hard truth? Or perhaps, as with one student, they don’t want to put their ideas on paper, but they are willing to open up a little bit when talking in person.

There is honest truth about what they need. Perhaps more challenge in a specific area. That can sometimes be hard to create, but it’s important to meet the range of learning differences present in my classroom. My co-teacher and I will need to put our heads together and think on it. We need to find solutions for these kids.

And then there is the brave soul who shares with me a hard truth. Something I’ve done that’s embarrassing. Ouch. That makes me pause and reflect. Immediately, I make plans in my head to talk directly and privately with that student. To apologize. To acknowledge my mistake. To brainstorm what I could do differently to convey the message I want this child to hear. To brainstorm how I can help this child be less silly, which just happens to be the student’s chosen goal for the second half of the year. This is a child who recognizes there is work to be done and wants to be treated respectfully. That’s fair.

This is about creating trusting relationships. Relationships are at the heart of learning,  and I want to do my best by these sweet kids entrusted to my care. I hope that by responding to the needs they express to me in writing that I am building their self-advocacy skills for the future.

Teaching is hard work.

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Passionate Readers: A book reflection

The start of a new year is a great time to reflect and consider what needs changing. That’s true for my teaching in addition to my life overall. Over the past two months I’ve been reading Passionate Readers by Pernille Ripp. It’s timely to finish it during my winter break, and it’s an incredible opportunity to reflect on my teaching of reading. FullSizeRender 18

I’ve followed Pernille’s blog for a few years now, read her earlier book Passionate Learners, and got to hear her speak at nErDcampMI last summer. Being so familiar with her teaching ideas and approach, there wasn’t anything earth-shatteringly new to me, but instead it was full of reminders of who I want to be as a teacher. Reading her blog in the past, I have often felt that she was channeling my own inner thoughts and that she was someone who understood my teaching philosophy. During parts of the book, I felt like I could actually hear her voice as I did last summer, particularly when she wrote about being a reading warrior.

She speaks to my heart when she writes about the importance of communicating one’s own reading identity and love of reading to students. Being a reading role model is a key component of teaching literacy, no matter what age the students are. I love the idea in her book of creating a display for students to see what I’m reading. While I love the idea of it, I struggle with logistics. Where would I put it? I already have a #classroombookaday display in the hallway. Should I tally my number of books in public? I try to downplay how many books I read to avoid a comparison or competition among students, so that seems to be at cross purposes there. Could we have a staff display of what each of us is reading and change our covers as needed? Hmmm, this looks like a conversation to have with our librarian!

There are other aspects to being a reading role model. One is to publicly admit our own bad habits or slumps. Students then see that we’re not perfect and all readers have things to work on and improve. Talking about our reading plans helps students see that reading doesn’t just spontaneously happen. We plan for what we might read next with a To Read list, a reading challenge, a book club, or some other inspiration. Most avid readers have busy lives and actively create time for the reading they want to do. Self-aware readers see their reading gaps. I have told students that I didn’t like realistic fiction in the past (to outraged gasps!), but that I started bringing more of these books into my reading repertoire and discovered ones that I really loved. Sharing these aspects of our lives should lead to conversations with our students so that they can actively develop metacognition around reading.

And yes, she is a strong advocate for teachers reading the books that their students are reading. YES! How else do my students know that I’m current with kidlit unless they know that I’m reading it? How can they trust my recommendations if I’m not honest about what I’ve read or if I only recommend books that are older than they are? Will I recommend books that I haven’t read? Sure, but with the caveat that I think it looks good. I want the same connections with my students that I share with my friends when we recommend books to one another.

IMG_7460She writes about the importance of the physical space. Reflecting on my classroom, I think that it’s pretty clear that our library is the focal point of the room. It’s comfy and cozy, and I even refer to it as the “living room” sometimes. Yet, reading this book reminds me to ask my students what they think about how it’s working for them. Find out if there is anything that they would change about our space. In the beginning of the year, we made a decision to use our seating options in a certain way. Is that working the way that they would like? Should we change anything about book organization to make the library more useful? Asking their opinions demonstrates respect for their ideas … provided that I truly listen to their ideas and work with them to make the space work for all of us. The relationships that we have in the classroom are a foundation for the quality of  learning that occurs.

This book reminds me other things I want to do. My teaching partner and I began using the Daily 5 structure this year, and I’m still building my repertoire of reading strategies/goals for students to choose from as we teach mini-lessons. Pernille recommends a book that I own, but haven’t yet read – Reading Strategies by Jennifer Serravallo. It’s moved up my To Read list.

Typically midyear, I do another big book purchase. I need to ask my students if there are titles that they wish we had. In the past I’ve had a suggestion box where students can offer ideas for books they would like to read, but I lost it at some point and haven’t replaced it. I purchase books with the intention of creating diverse offerings. A place where all students can see themselves represented and learn about others. I think I need to do a better job of changing the books that are displayed so that more of them get highlighted from our immense collection. One idea from Pernille’s classroom that I LOVE is to create a display of books that come from kid recommendations. A simple rotating wire display for the kids to see what their classmates are reading is a visible reminder that their voices matter.

In December, inspired in part by what I had read in this book, we asked our 4th graders how things are going with reading and what could be better. That stack of reflections is awaiting my deeper reading later this week, but a quick glance and conversations with students reinforced my sense that we don’t have enough reading time in class. I’m discovering that I have to be vigilant about protecting our time to read. I am a teacher who believes strongly in independent reading and the importance of dedicated time for it every day. And yet. Even I succumb to the daily pressure of all that we have to do … or think I have to do. This is an essential that we cannot do without. It is my responsibility to protect our reading time so that students develop further as readers.

There is a wealth of valuable information and teaching philosophy in Pernille’s book, including pointers toward other writers to explore further. She writes about how choice is important to ensuring student engagement. Her approach to incorporating the Notice and Note signposts from Kylene Beers and Robert Probst was intriguing in her comments on written reflections. Book abandonment is an aspect of reading that I want to explore further with my students. To “walk my talk” I’ve added a list to my personal reading journal so that I can keep track of what I’m abandoning and why. I want to try book “speed dating” as a structured way to get more ideas out to my students about books their classmates are reading. There is so much to unpack in this book!

I can’t wait to connect with Pernille again when she comes to the 2018 CCIRA Conference on Literacy next month. The mid-point of the year is a great time to reflect on the school year and evaluate where things are going next. I’m excited to further refine my teaching of reading and become even more of a reading warrior.

Fostering Connections

I’ve been thinking a lot about connections this fall and all the ways that my students can and do connect with others. Sometimes I write in this blog to wrestle with a big idea, but tonight I think I’m simply feeling happy about our month of October.

We recently completed our first Passion Projects – an independent study of a single biography with a timeline of important dates and a written Heart, Head, Hands and Feet summary. That summary is inspired by the work of Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris, from Reading WellnessTo celebrate student learning and share their work, we held a fair and invited family members and other classes in the Lower School. I loved seeing my students interact with many other people around their work – parents, grandparents, friends, teachers, administrators, strangers (to them), younger students, siblings, and more.

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Younger students came with a purpose. Second graders carried small notebooks and jotted down information as they asked questions and read projects. Third graders, armed with clipboards, had a longer term vision knowing they would follow up their visit with individual letters to my students. Hopefully, they were also soaking up the atmosphere of the event, imagining themselves at the fair next year when they would be fourth graders. My students squealed with happiness a week after the fair when they received letters. They remembered being on the other side of the letter writing relationship as third graders. Some examined their letters with more “experienced” eyes as they commented on the writing craft of younger students and recognized their own growth over time.

We changed the format so that all Passion Project work was done at school. Benefits accrued throughout the fall from this decision. My co-teacher and I had a better sense of the work students put into their projects because we witnessed it on a regular basis. There was no question of who did the work, as might come up when projects are completed at home. Parents were unanimously happy and supportive. It decreased stress (for everybody) and increased opportunities for play and family time. Again, important connections for my students.

IMG_9758We’re also reaching out to the wider world through connections with authors. I strive to treat book authors as rock stars. I share interesting tidbits with my students – things that I learn from conferences, blogs, and interviews – things that make authors more like “real people.” I’ve gotten to meet many authors and see their presence on social media, and so I know they are approachable and appreciate meeting their young fans. When one student wondered if Melanie Conklin was writing a sequel to Counting Thyme, I suggested that we reach out to her and ask. I took a photo, the student composed a message, we tweeted it out, … and received a reply. Since then, three other students have initiated direct contact with favorite authors, communicating the book love they feel.

A little more up close and personal was our visit with Chris Grabenstein, the author of the Lemoncello Library series (and more!) who came to our school last week. IMG_0028Third and fourth graders designed colorful posters to welcome him when he arrived. Sixth graders arrived first in our gathering place and wrote a handful of words to be used later in the presentation. Chris wowed us with life stories, funny comments, writing tips, and storytelling-on-the-spot with kid-generated elements (including those words). He stayed for lunch, eating with a handful of students and talking about books, among other things. He made quite an impression on the kids, and the fourth graders’ follow up letters made me laugh out loud. I hope Chris does too!

As anyone who has ever worked in a school knows, today – Halloween – can be a CRAZY day. We decided to embrace the crazy, roll with it, and have a fantastic time. Tiring, yes. Boring, no. And wonderfully, full of connections as well. Fourth grade detoured through the Middle School building on the way to lunch to check out all of the pumpkins and their profiles, voting on favorites. Most of our afternoon was filled with a party that is put on by our parents. It’s an annual tradition that is a beautiful example of connection. Our parents plan games and volunteer to run them. They bring food, and they help us put our rooms back to rights. They hang out with us and party like lower schoolers. Our students move through the game stations in multi-age groups. Mixing them up fosters connection – just watch a fourth or third grader look out for a younger student and help where needed. We were surprised to discover last year that there was a mellower atmosphere to the crazy day than in years past. Mixing up the ages helps the grown ups too!IMG_0096

As I look forward to November, a month where it’s common to talk about gratitude, I find myself feeling grateful for all of the connections that we’re building together in our class community, in our Lower School building, and within our larger communities as well.

Mindset and Change

I’ve been thinking a lot about mindset lately and how it impacts one’s reaction to change. While bike riding after school today, I was mindful of and admiring the current seasonal changes which led to my thinking about the changes a school year brings. There are the expected changes – a new class of kids to get to know, understand their learning needs, and build relationships with them as well as new parent partnerships to forge and nurture.

This year I’ve actively sought changes to make – Hello, Daily Five and #classroombookaday. Good-bye, homework time for Passion Projects. These changes necessitate other changes and questions. How do we tweak the schedule to build in more time for our Passion Project work so that we’re not relying on homework time for completion? What mini-lessons do we teach in Daily Five time and at what point in the year? How do we make time for daily picture book reading and what other curricular needs can those books support? And then there are changes that I didn’t seek but are thrust upon me – Hello, new teaching team and good-bye, former teaching partner who built our fourth grade model with me.

Through these changes I’ve noticed that my mindset makes all the difference in how I experience change. Looking for positives and opportunities within change allows me to develop into a better educator. And let’s be honest – it makes me a nicer coworker to be around! I remember learning when I had very small children that the gulf between one’s expectations and reality is directly related to the amount of frustration or anger felt about a tough situation. Bigger difference = more frustration. So what’s the solution? It’s not always easy to change reality, but it can be a catalyst for goal setting and longer-term shifts. What can more readily change are one’s expectations. Recognizing the parameters of whatever frustrating situation one is in is a helpful first step to working toward a successful resolution.

Why does this matter for my students? I think that being aware of my own responses to change and frustration and the interplay with my mindset allows me to better support students as they wrestle with changes and frustrations in their lives. I consider how I can be proactive with them and build skills.

This fall we’ve started out with a biography unit related to our first Passion Projects. Grace Hopper HHHFWe’ve read fantastic picture book biographies and seen how eminent people have responded to roadblocks … Albert Einstein being poorly regarded by his teachers … Grace Hopper being initially denied entrance to the Navy … Lonnie Johnson facing racism as he developed his passion for science and inventing. Over and over again, these biographies illustrate the importance of one’s mindset to achieve one’s dreams and goals through persistence.

In addition to providing and discussing models provided by famous people, I am conscious of my own language and how it affects student mindset. We talk about growth vs. fixed mindset, look for it in books, and celebrate it in one another. One of my favorite words is “yet” – I’m not great at this YET, but with practice I can do better. My attention is tuned to this as I read work by other educators. Recently I can across the idea of calling something one’s “best draft” instead of a “final draft.” Final draft implies that the work is complete and can be no better. Best draft communicates that it is one’s best work to date, but has room for improvement.

And don’t we all have room for improvement? My meandering thoughts while cycling tonight led me to feeling gratitude for my school. It’s a place where we are talking about the importance of making mistakes and learning from mistakes. We desire and try to create classroom environments where students feel safe enough to know that “(t)he only true failure can come if you quit.” (from Rosie Revere Engineer by Andrea Beatty) That mindset permeates our campus and supports me as I both embrace, and wrestle with, change this fall.

Conference Reflection

FullSizeRender 14Over a month ago I attended nErDcampMI in Parma, MI. I intended to reflect on the experience rather quickly so that I could cement my learning and intentions. Instead I found myself in the bustle of travel followed by the transition back home, houseguests, a college-age daughter visiting briefly, and the ramp up to a new school year.

Why did I go? Many people looked at me with surprise when they realized that I was from Colorado. While people do travel great distances to attend this ED Camp, a large number of attendees are from surrounding states (Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio were well-represented). Many of the bloggers whom I follow in the education world attend this conference, and some even created it. It has a lot of buzz in my online wanderings. I was intrigued by that buzz, especially learning about the large number of children’s lit authors and illustrators who attend. I found that it would fit my summer travels this year, and so I went.

It was marvelous! The very first session was a panel of authors and a librarian speaking on the importance of diverse books, especially when written by diverse authors. I walked away with titles to explore, read, and purchase for my classroom library and an affirmation of the importance of providing both windows and mirrors for my students.

FullSizeRender 15I listened to many speakers whose words I’ve read on the page or on a screen. It’s powerful to put a face to a name and see someone as a real person with a distinct (and perhaps unexpected!) personality. I laughed with Tracey Baptiste (The Jumbies), nodded along with R. J. Palaccio (Wonder), and spoke with Alex Gino (George) about the positive impact their book has had on individuals at my school.

IMG_9452I arrived excited to learn more about #classroombookaday and starting a Mock Caldecott unit. I came away with with ideas for both, titles to read for #classroombookaday, and confidence that this was completely doable. I gathered tips for streamlining our reading of picture books to make it more manageable and to fit into available bits of time. When I walked into my school in August, I happened to find a large piece of bulletin board paper on the wall, so I measured and calculated to transform it into a chart to track our reading progress. In some ways it seems quite empty, and yet, in the blank spaces I see the myriad opportunities for us to read and share picture books, building community and connection along the way. Our first week set the stage for fantastic conversation. I already love the insightful comments made in our class. I’m looking forward to collaborating with our art teacher for a Mock Caldecott unit, incorporating new picture books into our #classroombookaday reading to satisfy multiple purposes.

I’m intrigued to incorporate Mystery Skypes into our curriculum. What a fantastic way to use geography knowledge and map reading for an engaging purpose! We can connect with classes in other locations, learn about others, and work toward a common goal. There’s so much good tied up in all of this! A fabulous piece of this also is that we can connect with other classes throughout the year, so the geography work stays fresh. It’s not limited to our fall unit.

I gathered more ideas for how to support flexible seating in the classroom. My new teaching partner and I are incorporating the Daily 5 for the first time and dipping our toes into Responsive Classroom (not trained YET, but we hope to be). I love how multiple ideas support and feed one another, and we’re ready to be even more successful with flexible seating with a few more tools at our disposal.

One of my most admired and inspiring reading warriors is Donalyn Miller. I was lucky to attend a session run by her and Teri Lesesne about creating reading autobiographies with students. I’m intrigued to use it as a reflection later in the year. I was fascinated to consider the different ways you could use these autobiographies with students depending on their age and your curricular needs.

nErDcampMI is a little conference with a big impact, and I look forward to returning some day in the future.  It complemented my other professional reading this summer and likely fed into my reflective work at our K-8 faculty retreat a couple weeks ago. We spent time at the retreat considering the WHY of our teaching – what fuels us, gets us out of bed in the morning, makes our job what we love.

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I realized that my love of reading is one reason why I love teaching. I find such joy and value in reading, and I want to create those connections for other students.

 

Summers “off” for teachers are incredibly valuable. Making time to reflect, to learn, and to read is what helps me as I strive to be a better teacher. I’m excited for this new school year, and I can’t wait to incorporate new things that I learned.

Summer Musings

There’s so much that I love about summer. While it’s not quite true that I have “3 months off” as many people believe, I do have the opportunity to change my daily routine and time to recharge my spirit between school years.

The month of June was filled with professional reading, among other things. My teaching partner and I have decided to incorporate the Daily 5 framework for our literacy time, but we needed to learn a lot more about it. My partner attended a local workshop on Daily 5 and CAFE here in Denver last month, and I read both books. She and I have met to begin talking about how to incorporate it into our collaborative classrooms, and we’ve added a few small items to our August shopping list. I’m excited to add this to our classroom structure and see huge benefits for independent skills for students.

Additionally, another colleague (6th grade teacher) and I met a few times last month to talk about books and reading. I’m thrilled that she also loves Notice and Note by Beers and Probst and wants to bring it into the 6th grade curriculum. I began using it this past school year and was able to share what I learned, my stumbling blocks, and the changes that I’ll make next year. Our new 5th grade teacher is also intrigued, which gives us a solid 3-year span to implement these strategies with our students and hopefully build strong close reading skills.

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That same friend joined me in an online summer book club for teachers. I feel a little out of my league there as most of the teachers are in middle or high school and see direct application for our novels with their students. My fourth graders are a little on the young side for the two novels we’re reading, but I’m benefiting from the way that folks are talking and investigating. I can’t wait until we begin talking about Disrupting Thinking, also by Beers and Probst, and an inspiring book that I’m in the middle of reading. I’m blown away by the number of other professional resources that are jumping on my “To Read” list as a result of reading this single title.

Next week I get to attend nErDcampMI for the first time. I’m excited and nervous both. I’ve been reading the buzz about it for the past couple of years in some of the blogs that I follow, so I’ve kept it in mind as a summer possibility. It happened to line up well with other travel this year, so I went for it. I’m nervous because it pushes my comfort zone as a serious introvert! I’m excited to hear from different authors and illustrators who are attending, and I’m motivated to learn from other teachers. Our art teacher and I are planning to collaborate on a Mock Caldecott unit this year, and I definitely want to hear what others are doing and look for inspiration.

I clearly have the professional recharge under my belt – what about personally? I make plenty of time for tennis, lunch dates with my husband, and time in the mountains with family and friends. I’ve been pushing myself physically as I take long hikes and hone my dirt biking skills. I try to pause and appreciate the beauty around me. Columbine, paintbrush, and various wildflowers are in bloom. Deer, hummingbirds, and other wildlife come near. Slowing down and savoring what’s around me, even when it’s rain and thunderclouds. All of this is soul-filling.

And then there are the books.

Books from my classroom library. My students ask if I’ve read EVERY book…and I haven’t…but I am trying to fill in some of my gaps so that I am more knowledgeable when I recommend titles.

New books and possibilities for our Mock Newbery Club. In May, I had lunch with our book club 5th and 6th graders when author Jennifer Bertman came to visit and we talked about Mock Newbery. How to make it better. What the students would like to see. So we’re starting earlier – in September – which means that I need to curate at least a starting list of books for us to read. I love this club that allows me to connect with former students as well as current students at the same time.

Books for my own adult book club. We have a big meeting in August where we all recommend and suggest books for the coming 12 months. I read books throughout the year with an eye toward what I might “sell” to my book group. I think about that heavily in the summertime, when my reading life is a bit more flexible and expansive.

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As I write this, my summer is half over. My second half will have a bit different flavor with travel and a conference filling my days. I’m already excited for next year’s class of fourth graders and my new teaching team. I’m excited to continue building my skills (of all sorts) throughout the summer and into the school year. I’m also looking forward to the remaining time to recharge and refill my own energy this summer.

More mountain time. More family and friends. More books. Everything I need.

Choosing HOW We See

Being new to this writing life, I find it interesting what can trigger an inspiration to write…student work, nature, my reading, experiences with others, and more. This post’s inspiration? The photograph included here that taken from inside an umbrella. I didn’t know what I would do with it, nor did I have time to write earlier in the week when I snapped it. But it’s been tiptoeing around in my brain as I planned for a disciplined time to write.IMG_8755

Moments before beginning this, I was looking for quotes for an activity that I’m leading with my fellow teachers next week, and one by Amy Krouse Rosenthal particularly struck me. “I tend to believe whatever you decide to look for you will find, whatever you beckon will eventually beckon you.”

Rereading my posts to see what had inspired earlier writing, I noticed that my current thoughts are similar to my “With Eyes of Wonder” post on 9/25/16. I agree with Rosenthal’s quote, and I think it’s important for me to choose carefully HOW I look at a situation. My photograph was taken on a rainy day. I keep an umbrella at school for those rare Colorado days when we need one. As I was waiting for my students near the end of their PE class, I happened to look up and smiled at the beautiful rainbow in the underside of my umbrella. I clumsily took a few photos, yet ended up with a decent shot. I liked this one because the spokes created a star radiating from the center pole.

That evening, I used my umbrella picture in my gratitude journal. Each evening I take time to list whatever I feel grateful for that day. I limit it to 5-6 items in order to maintain my focus to that particular day. Of course there are things for which I am grateful every single day, but I don’t want my list to become cumbersome by listing everything, nor do I want to feel any obligation when writing my list. I find that my structure supports me in seeing the magic of that day and its unique greatness.

It being the end of the school year, there are student behaviors that my colleagues and I chalk up to “spring fever.” I could respond in numerous ways – get cranky, crack down on rules, excuse it, complain to anyone who will listen, ignore it… And yes, I’ve used all of those in different situations. While these can be helpful coping mechanisms for a few short weeks, at the same time, I want to embody and foster a sense of staying strong to finish the year. That includes the way I look at troublesome behaviors. Does this child have anxiety about change? Is s/he worried about how different the summer will be structured compared to the school year? Is this student already feeling nervous about next year’s teacher and feeling sadness at the anticipation of the end of our time together? Might this student be nervous about our upcoming three-day overnight trip? While I won’t excuse disruptive behaviors, I find that trying to understand off-kilter behavior allows me to demonstrate empathy and truly support a student.

We have an exciting three weeks left of our school year. (Yikes!) Those weeks will fly by with amazing experiences: the conclusion of our final read aloud novel, a visit by the author of that novel, final touches to our digital portfolios, celebrating learning with families at Student Led Conferences, a three-day trip, a pajama day, a field day, one more trip to our campus Challenge Course, and a class party. Our final week will also have necessary tasks that signal the end is near: planning and preparing for our role in the Lower School Closing Ceremony, emptying the walls of student work, emptying desks, and packing up for the summer.

I can easily become overwhelmed when I think of all I want to accomplish and finish before I have to say goodbye to this community of learners. My goal is to stay present in each moment rather than anticipating what I might feel in the future. That is an ideal way to honor this class and truly celebrate what we’ve accomplished together. I will beckon presence.

Learning From My Students

Two of the advantages to the way that our fourth grade team has structured the teaching of science and social studies are that I get to teach both subjects and I have one prep for two classes. I only teach science in the winter trimester, but the units happen to fall within my wheelhouse of interests. While the trimester is a month past, I spent time earlier today (our last day of Spring Break) looking over student reflections of their science experiences and their Design Thinking organizers for our culminating engineering challenge. Themes jumped out at me, and I wanted to be sure to grab them in writing.

For students’ overall science reflection, I created a chart with each of our topics (Energy, Engineering, Simple Machines, Earth Science) and the individual activities or demonstrations that we explored. I asked students to identify for each topic what they liked best and what they were wondering about now that the unit is over.  Five themes emerged in their identified favorites: making posters, choosing partners, building or having hands on experiences, facing challenges, and choosing topics.

Did any of these surprise me? Not at all! In fact their preferences and desires reinforced for me many of the choices that I’ve made in classroom and instructional design. First and foremost is choice. Having opportunities to choose a partner and/or a topic of research helps students become more engaged. As we’re about to begin a small research project in History this week, it’s timely for me to consider how to structure the assignment of topics and partners to determine if I need to manage their teams this time, or if this is a place to give them more choice.

Making posters and building/creating with their hands remind me that my instructional activities need to encompass multiple modes of learning. Unfortunately, history can be dry depending on how it’s presented and explored. My 13 Colonies unit is new for me, and I have intentionally sought out suggestions and ideas from other teachers and resources for ways to incorporate active modes of learning. I’m excited to share them with the students and discover alongside them how effective the activities are.

Finally, facing challenges. Yes! I love seeing evidence that students want to be challenged and pushed. Particularly gratifying is seeing how students have taken their classroom experiences with engineering challenges to inform how they interacted with our high school robotics team. The end of our engineering unit coincided with the robotics team coming to visit us, share their competition robot, and explain their process. We spent 45-60 minutes together, with most of that time directed by fourth graders’ questions. Certainly they had material and task-specific questions similar to: How does it work? What does that part do? How high can it throw a ball? However, they also asked questions that evidenced their comprehension of the design process and wondered how a large team (30-40 students, completely unimaginable to the fourth graders!) was able to collaborate on the robot. My favorite question was How many times did you fail? The fourth graders have hands on experience facing failure in their attempts to meet engineering challenges, so they expected to hear that the high schoolers failed a lot.

IMG_8141Because I wanted my students to explicitly see the stages of Design Thinking in action, for their culminating challenge I created a worksheet to guide them. After I presented their challenge, they all wrote any questions that they had. Then we talked about their questions and refined the parameters of the problem. Next students independently drew or wrote their ideas for a solution,  recording their initial ideas and prototypes. After this, students learned who was on their team and met together to talk about all ideas and to plan a course of action. Only after this step, could students receive any materials to begin building and testing their ideas. This lined up well with learning from the robotics team that for their 6-week build period, they spent the first 7-10 days hashing out different plans before they began to build their robot.

What did fourth graders’ thinking look like on paper? A delightful variety of forms emerged in their organizers and represented different personalities or learning styles:

  • complete sentences
  • jotted or random ideas
  • doodles
  • detailed drawings
  • ordered steps
  • shapes to code their thoughts to the provided prompts
  • questions about process
  • questions about materials

This was the first time that I’ve used an organizer for our littleBits design challenge, and I loved how successful it was. Spending time in these steps really allowed all students to engage with the process and come to their respective groups with ideas to contribute.

I love learning from the students. I look forward to returning to school this week and letting them know that I value their comments and pay attention to their ideas. I admit that I’m also grateful to find affirmation for my teaching and curriculum design choices reflected in their comments.

My favorite discovery in the students’ work? This insightful comment: “Working is learning and trying new things. What is not working is when you just sit there.” Wisdom indeed from a ten-year-old.

 

“You are a wonder.”

Not writing for 3+ months has been trying to my soul. A lot of professional writing went into my first trimester report card narratives and the creation of my digital portfolio in the late fall. I think I felt as if I had no words left inside me. Then the holidays. Then a month of illness and a winter slump. With spring awakening outside, I find myself compelled to write this evening, so I am taking advantage of the inspiration while it strikes.IMG_8283

What triggered it? The crocuses in my garden. The amazingness of my fourth graders. Finishing our read aloud novel this afternoon. The title of this blog post is the last line of our book, Wonder by R. J. Palacio, and the words have been tumbling in my head all afternoon. What follows is effectively a love letter to my students.

I absolutely delight in the crazy chaos that is fourth grade. At the moment, I think I’m noticing a “Storm” phase, a term that comes from adventure experience. I was trained in the past year to facilitate groups on our campus Challenge Course, which I wrote about last August. While I don’t actually take fourth graders on the course, I DO use my facilitator training every single day in the classroom. And right now, the kids are a bit squirrelly and their social relationships are fraught with challenges. It’s the very beginning of the emotional disequilibrium that many people associate with middle school and the tween/early teen years.

Yesterday, I decided to try something different with the kids. The day before had come with multiple reports of unkindness or lack of inclusion, and I thought about our next steps. I offered my idea to my teaching partners with the caveat that it might fall flat and be an utter failure. “Okay. Fail forward.” Bless them! That is the kind of support for innovation that I love about my school in general and specifically our fourth grade team. I corralled some early arriving fourth graders, and we set up for a sounding.

A sounding? I learned about this in my facilitator training and have experienced powerful listening and sense of community through it. We made a circle of chairs and created a safe space to speak. I won’t go into the details of the process or the directions, but it was amazingly beautiful. The kids just blew me away with the way that they listened to classmates and created a safe container for each other to speak or stay silent as they chose. I couldn’t stop talking about them yesterday and singing their praises. Our Challenge Course Manager (and one of my CC mentors) was astounded to hear that fourth graders had held a sounding. (If you’re curious to learn more about soundings, see the PDFs below by Thomas Leahy, who originated the model and is another of my CC mentors.)

Is it THE answer to our social challenges? Probably not. Part of the answer is also work, by the students themselves and with teacher support, to create lasting change. This sounding was an important step for students to feel heard by their peers, no matter their point of view, and to strengthen our class community.

Then today happened. We finished Wonder. I laughed internally at one point because someone noticed a squirrel outside the window and had to bring it to the attention of the class. Yes- “Squirrel!” They were like little puppy dogs, momentarily distracted by the outside world. We all came back to the magic of the story and soon reached the end of the book. One student said that she was sad because it was one of those books that she just didn’t want to end. Yes. I agree completely. Another student coined the word “hassy” to describe how he felt – a combination of Happy and Sad.

I love the way that read aloud helps to build our classroom community while we share the magic of a great story. There are good cognitive reasons to read aloud, and it is a key component of our reading curriculum. But the magic of the group… That’s what hooks me. And soothes me. And knits us together. There is one point in Wonder that is incredibly sad. (If you’ve read it, you can probably guess exactly which part I’m talking about, but if you haven’t read it, I won’t spoil it. I’ll just strongly suggest that you read the book soon.) I was tearing up and knew that I would soon be bawling while reading out loud. Not an easy feat. I asked a student to get tissues for the small table in our reading corner for anyone who needed one. Instead, she walked around to each student, offering the box. Sweet, thoughtful kindness. And we needed tissues. Some students were even holding each other and hugging through the sadness. Magical indeed.

So, to my fourth graders, you are a wonder. You are the reason I love my job. You are the reason why I continue to stick with the hard job of teaching. You are a wonder.

Sounding (c) Thomas M Leahy

Sounding Model (c) Thomas Leahy

Musings on NCTE 2016

I was fortunate to be able to attend the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) conference “Faces of Advocacy” earlier this month. For years, I had the misconception that NCTE was for secondary teachers. Then, as I began immersing myself in multiple blogs, I discovered that many elementary level teachers attended and loved NCTE conferences. My school sponsored my attendance this year, for which I am grateful and honored. I have attended many national conferences of various types, often as the sole teacher from my school, not knowing other people there. In spite of that being true again, I was surprised by how “at home” I felt at this conference – that I had found my tribe. img_7530

One highlight for me was the sheer number of authors who I was able to meet and/or listen to speak. It was inspiring to be with so many of them. I discovered new authors whose books I hadn’t read yet. I learned about new books that are forthcoming and sound marvelous. I heard origin stories for stories as well as circuitous revision routes. I scribbled furiously to catch words of wisdom from many:

“It is through books that we have the opportunity to meet people different from us and realize how alike we are.” Nikki Grimes (italics added by me)

Ami Polonski (Gracefully Grayson) talked about the power and responsibility that adults – teachers and parents – have as gatekeepers of middle grade fiction. We tend to buy the books, not the kids, so it is our duty to have a variety of books available and to teach them. This, and everything else I heard about the importance of diversity within our classroom libraries, has inspired me to set a goal for next summer: to look critically at my classroom library to see what “holes” I have in terms of various identifiers to make sure that I truly have opportunities for all kids to find books that are mirrors and windows. This research will inform my book purchases in August for the new school year. Of course, I’ll keep this in mind as I acquire books between now and then as well! But I look forward to a careful, critical examination of my library.

Many authors spoke of how they hear from readers and learn that their books truly save lives. Sharon Draper, an award-winning author as well as former teacher (and 1997 National Teacher of the Year – cool, fun fact to learn!), stressed how important it is to find THAT book for kids who don’t read, THAT book that finally turns them on to reading. Combined with another presentation on the Heartwork of Teaching, I was reminded again and again how the connection with our students is at the heart of any meaningful teaching. I know this, I believe this, and I value being reminded of this truth. It’s easy for teachers to get caught up in the day-to-day mundane details. This conference was a fantastic affirmation for me of what is most important.

Many authors also spoke about themselves as students, and many of them were not great students. Many struggled in school. It was inspiring to see how they overcame their challenges and became creators who impact children’s lives. Kwame Alexander said it well, “Sometimes we have to teach the kid, and not the curriculum.”

I shared with author, Lynda Mullaly Hunt, how her book Fish in a Tree impacted one of my students a couple of years ago. Reading the novel as a class read aloud was a catalyst for this fourth grader to publicly own who she was as a learner to her peers. The strength and pride I saw in that student made my heart swell, and Lynda’s gracious and generous response to my story actually brings tears to my eyes when I tell others. Later this week I have the privilege of closing the gap and sharing her response with my former student.

One of my favorite sessions was about thinking of reading as revision. We talk all the time about revision when we write, but we also revise when we read. Our ideas of what is happening in a book are constantly changing as we learn more of the story. I gleaned so many ideas for conferring with kids about the reading that they do as well as resources for my future reference. Ellin Keene shared a powerful metaphor created by a first grader (I believe that’s the correct age) – that it’s like throwing a rock in a pond. The first time you read something, it makes a big splash. The ripples are your thinking getting bigger and bigger. The rock, your first thought, is still there though, underneath the water. I love it! As I thought about this metaphor, I realized that the edges of the pond are like the text of the story – our ideas and thinking are contained within the boundaries of the text evidence. I can’t wait to share this with my students.

Even in my final session when I, like everybody around me, was exhausted, and I felt like I had been drinking from a fire hose, I still gleaned valuable nuggets. One question by Jen Vincent has stayed with me, “Are we creating classrooms worthy of our children’s intellect?” That is a useful question to ponder and a critical lens to turn on my classroom and my teaching as I reflect throughout the year.

I’m grateful to have gone to this conference. I’ve returned with many books to share with my students and colleagues. I have pages of inspiring notes to return to and reflect on all that I absorbed. Thank you, NCTE, for a fantastic conference. Thank you, Dawson School, for the ongoing support that you provide for our professional development.